On any given night in Arlington, Texas, a group of open-carry activists turned self-appointed cop-watchers can be found walking by the side of the road, in safety-yellow reflector vests with cameras pointed at police. They carry “FILM THE POLICE” signs, and sometimes, in a habit that’s become of increasing concern to the officers being watched, they’re carrying guns of their own.
These armed activists’ mission—ostensibly to hold the police accountable by recording every interaction—has found new meaning in light of recent deaths of unarmed citizens like Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Indeed, members of the Texas group have adopted the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” cry popularized during protests of the men’s deaths.
The group is led in part by Kory Watkins, an Olive Garden bartender trainer and a bandwagon activist who also presides over Open Carry Tarrant County (OCTC). (He’s also the host of Open Carry Cop Watch, an Internet radio show that’s launching this week.) Chasing leads from police scanners, members of OCTC and a local faction known as Cop Block—another loosely organized group of anti-law enforcement libertarian-leaners—have been gathering in the approach to DUI checkpoints and speed traps to warn motorists of the police presence, responding in real time with cops to 911 calls, making impromptu stops to film strangers’ traffic violations, all while trolling the police they observe. (During the heckling, bacon references abound, and some cop-watchers even wear police hats with pig ears attached as they follow officers.) According to Watkins, who often carries his AK-47 while cop-watching, the group makes as many as 20 stops a session, depending on the night.
Cop-watching—the practice of observing and documenting police interactions to try to reduce brutality and civil-rights violations—was started by the Black Panther Party in Oakland in the 1960s. Panthers carrying shotguns or wearing pistols on their hips would hit the streets with law books and watch the police to demand accountability. The open carrying of guns was perfectly legal then, though laws were soon enacted to restrict the practice, due in large part to the Panthers’ enthusiastic exercising of their rights.
Today, cop-watching is back, mostly in response to killings of unarmed citizens by police and controversial policies like New York City’s stop-and-frisk. Many cop-watch organizations like to tout the Black Panthers’ origin story, but due to laws or common sense, no longer arm themselves. “Today, our cameras are our weapons,” New York City’s People’s Justice says on its site.
Not so much in Texas.
According to the Arlington Police Department, cop-watching has been going on in that city for about a year. Though early interactions were uneventful—Sgt. Jeffrey Houston told The Daily Beast both the filming of police and the open carry of firearms are “a constitutional right that the department supports”—recently, the cop-watches have been escalating in hostility and frequency and several members have been arrested.
“The police department in Arlington is out of control and keeps wrongfully arresting people for doing things that are well within their rights,” Watkins said in part of a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “It’s wasting taxpayer money and it’s violating the rights of the people.”
Jacob Cordova, 27, is the latest activist to be jailed for their activities. Cordova, an Air Force veteran who sports a Ron Paul “rEVOLution” tattoo on his right arm and flashes a peace sign in his Facebook photos, was on patrol last Saturday as a part of the Tarrant County Peaceful Streets Project when, according a two-minute video of the event, he was arrested. “[For] a pre-1899 black powder pistol, which isn’t against the law. I want them to,” he says as two cops approach. The arresting officer says, “You’re not allowed to have a firearm. I’ve asked you to put it up.” Though the gun is actually legal in Texas, which allows the open carry of long guns and certain antique revolvers, Cordova was taken into custody and charged with the misdemeanor of interfering with public duties.According to police, Cordova drove up to a traffic stop, got out of his car, and began yelling at officers and pulling up his vest to show them he was armed.“When you see somebody being aggressive, interfering with a stop, and armed with a deadly weapon, the officer can’t just ignore that,” Sgt. Houston said.Open-carry activists are known for baiting cops into on-camera arguments about the Second Amendment and state laws. And Cordova has had his share of run-ins with authorities, including an ill-advised attempt to issue a citizen’s arrest for a police officer for double parking.Arlington police say they’re gotten used to open-carry activists, and even the biggest firebrands among the cop-watch crowd. “It’s the combination that creates an enhanced threat to officer safety,” said Tiara Richard, a spokeswoman for the Arlington Police Department.Cordova refused to comment on the officer’s allegations—he and others in the group are reluctant to talk with reporters about Cordova’s arrest or their cop-watching activities—but wrote in a Facebook chat with me, “What you see on the video is what you get.” The posted video, however, starts conveniently just before the officers arrest him and leaves out any possible inciting incident by Cordova.Cordova’s arrest was the second of the night for the cop-watch gang. The first was 26-year-old Pablo Frias, who showed up to record as police responded to a 911 call for a woman had been threatened with a rifle. According to police, Frias got into a disagreement with a bystander at the scene. “Officers had to go stop an elderly lady from being assaulted,” Sgt. Houston said. Frias—who was arrested in 2013 for interfering with public duties and public intoxication—was not carrying a gun at the time.In September, Watkins; his wife, Janie Lucero; and Joseph Tye, a leader of Texas Cop Block, were arrested on charges related to interfering with a traffic stop. Later, Lucero posted photos online of bruises to her arms, alleging she’d been manhandled by police.The ratcheting cop-watches and arrests come at a time of anti-police sentiment and heightened concern over officers’ safety. An Arlington PD spokesman noted that in the last fortnight, two New York officers were shot dead in their car, two Los Angeles officers were shot at as they responded to a call, and an officer in Florida was shot and killed responding to a noise complaint.“It’s a real threat,” Sgt. Houston said.“We don’t mind them cop-watching. Just leave your guns in the car. Leave your guns at home,” Lt. Christopher Cook told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.But such a bargain seems unlikely. Certified letters from the Arlington Police Department requesting a meeting with the cop-watch and open-carry groups have been denied and ignored. Responding to Cordova’s arrest, cop-watch leader Watkins posted a video doubling down: “You disobey the oath that you took and you kidnap and harass citizens who are well within their rights and this is what you get: pissed off patriots. And it ain’t going anywhere.”